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How to: Detail your car for beginners

Another episode in the "How to" series of blog posts I've been writing whilst many of us are stuck at home in the COVID-19 lockdown. It's giving us a lot of free time and like myself, many car geeks are turning attention to detailing their pride and joy, but for most who are new to the detailing world, where do we start? For this guide I'll use 2 examples, a 1964 Mercury Comet and a 2017 BMW 530.

This guide is aimed at the beginner or enthusiast, and will cover the basics of washing, decontaminating, polishing and waxing your car. These basics might not seem all that basic, but in the ever-evolving and complex world of detailing this will be as basic as it will get.

Disclaimer - I will not be held responsible for any damages caused from incorrect use of this how to guide, you do this at your own risk! I am also not sponsored by any of product manufacturers mentioned in this blog however these are the products I'd recommend based on my own personal experiences.

Before we start, make sure you have plenty of room to work with everything setup. We'll be using a mixture of water and electricity with cables and hoses, I can't count how many times I've tripped up my own hose pipe and the last thing we want is damage to yourself or your car!

If you're in direct sunlight bare in mind that products can and will dry very quickly, and you'll also get dehydrated quickly too!

I'll leave links to products and equipment as we go along with a full breakdown at the bottom of each step.

The overall process is a full wash and decontamination, followed by polishing, cleansing and waxing the paintwork. So lets begin:

Don't forget to take some photos before and after!

1. Wheels, tyres and arches (If you've read our How to: Wash your car for beginners, this may look familiar.)

The wheels tend to be the grubbiest part of the car, so it makes sense to clean this area first.

Only work on one wheel at a time and start by giving it a good rinse to remove as much grime and brake dust as possible.

Spray your wheel cleaner onto the wheel and leave to dwell for a couple minutes and do not allow it to dry.

Spray your wheel cleaner into the bristles of a soft detail brush and gentle agitate into the wheel making sure to get in all the nooks and crannies around the wheel nuts and in between the spokes.

Use a long reach wheel brush and a bucket of wheel shampoo (or regular shampoo) and work from the top down cleaning behind the spokes and the barrels of the wheel. This step is not essential if you don't have access to the equipment or products.

Spray all purpose cleaner onto a stiff bristle brush and onto the tyre and scrub until you have achieved a nice foaming action. To further clean a tyre, especially a white-wall use tar remover on a microfiber!

Step back and rinse the wheel and tyre top to bottom & give the wheel arch a good rinse too.

If wheel cleaner will not remove stubborn brake dust I'd recommend using a Iron fall out remover instead of wheel cleaner following the same technique, the product will bleed red/purple when its activated.

The wheel cleaner I personally recommend can be found here:

The detailing brushes can be found here:

Long reach wheel brushes can be found here:

Wheel soap can be found here:

The tyre brush can be found here:

And the all purpose cleaner diluted 5:1 can be found here:

Iron fall out remover can be found here:

2. Pre Wash

With the wheels now attended to its time to turn out attention to the rest of the car.

Starting from the top down, rinse the car panel pet panel to remove any loose dirt. Hold the pressure washer lance at a downward 45 degree angle and around 20 - 30cm away from the panel. Don't get too close as you could damage the paint!

If you have a build up of grime and bug splats on the lower areas I recommend using a Citrus based pre cleaner. Simple spray onto the affected areas only, leave to dwell then rinse after a couple of minutes. You're only going to really need this on sills, bumpers and grilles of the dirtier car. Do not allow to dry!

And now the fun bit. Snow foam. Fill your snow foam lance with 1 - 2 inches of product and the rest with fresh water. Lift your wipers up and open your fuel flap as its important to clean inside this too, and working from the bottom to top spray a even layer of foam all over the vehicle.

We work bottom to top in this case because the lower areas are usually the dirtiest, so the foam has more dwell time! Leave the foam to dwell for around 5 - 10 mins but do not allow to dry.

Whilst the foam is dwelling, using another detail brush (its important to have different brushes for different tasks to avoid cross-contamination of products and dirt) and all purpose cleaner to gently agitate areas such as badges, grilles, panel gaps, window seals and the fuel flap whilst the foam is dwelling.

Once complete rinse the car from top to bottom making sure to remove all the foam ready for the wash stage.

Citrus cleaner can be found here:

Snow foam can be found here:

The snow foam lance can be found here:

Don't have a pressure washer? Hand pump foamer:

3. Wash

With 2 buckets with grit guards (designed to catch grit and dirt), fill one with fresh water about 3/4 full. Pour your shampoo into the other bucket (around 2 cap fulls) and fill with fresh water, again around 3/4 full.

Get a fresh wash mitt, and rinse it in your fresh water bucket, followed by dipping it in your shampoo bucket and working from the top down on flat surfaces first, wash the roof in straight lines backwards and forwards. We use straight lines in case a bit of grit gets caught and scratches the surface, they are easier to rectify than overlapping circular scratches, although this is a very rare occurrence.

Once complete, rinse the mitt into the fresh water and then the shampoo and move onto the next panel (ideally bonnet or tailgate, windscreen or rear window). Repeat all around the vehicle taking your time on each panel with overlapping straight motions. Make sure to wash the mitt out in between panels. I'd also recommend a second mitt for lower areas like sills and under bumpers as these tend to be rather dirty and you should not clean these with the same mitt as you'd use on the rest of the paintwork.

Do not allow shampoo to dry and starting top to bottom rinse the entire vehicle making sure all product has been removed.

Buckets can be found here (You'll need 2) :

Shampoo can be found here:

Wash mitt can be found here:

4. Decontamination

Back in the day we'd be in a position to polish the paintwork, but as today's paint is a bit more advanced we have to prepare it for polishing. Ask any detailer or bodyshop painter, to get the best possible results, you need the best possible preparation. As Abraham Lincoln once said "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe" although he wasn't (to my knowledge) a detailer, but he will agree its all in the prep.

First off we'll tackle any metallic contaminants such as industrial fall out and rail dust that have embedded or fused themselves to the paintwork with an iron fall out remover. Spray liberally over the vehicle including paint, wheels and glass. Allow to dwell and you'll notice it starts a chemical reaction bringing contaminants to the surface and bleeding red/purple in the process. After 5 - 10 mins rinse all product away and do not allow product to dry.

The next step is tar removal. Tar will form mostly around the lower areas of doors, arches and bumpers. I recommend only doing this step if necessary as you can visibly see any tar deposits. Simply spray onto the affected area, the tar deposit will dissolve and bleed and after a minute or two wipe away with a microfiber cloth. You may need to spray more product onto the surface, spray some onto the microfiber to aid lubrication and removal. It's very important that after tar removal you wash the treated areas as the product will melt the clay bar used in the next step.

Clay bars are essentially a block of clay that will remove any remaining contaminants such as tree sap or overspray. A typical clay bar can be cut into about 5 separate pieces (and used on about 5 different cars so they will last a good couple of years). Cut or pull a small piece of clay off, flatten it out into a burger/patty shape, spray clay lube onto the paintwork and rub the clay over the surface with light pressure in a backwards and fowards motion around 6 - 8 inches in length. You'll here popping and clicking and this is the clay pulling anything that's embedded into the paintwork out. I recommend working in small areas and working your way around the vehicle including lights and glass.

This stage should not inflict scratches or marring to the paintwork if done correctly. For best results use plenty of lube & don't rush. Fold the clay over periodically to ensure a nice clean surface ready to receive contaminants and once complete, either re-wash or snow foam the car again to remove any residue and thoroughly rinse.

If you drop the clay bar on the floor, discard it.

Iron fall out remover can be found here:

Tar remover can be found here:

Clay bar can be found here:

Clay lube can be found here:

Microfibers can be found here:

5. Drying

With the car completely rinsed, spray a fine misting of quick detailer over every panel and using a drying towel in a sweeping motion, dry the vehicle top to bottom.

The quick detailer adds a layer of lubrication to aid drying.

Same can be done with wheels and a smaller microfiber towel however I'd personally recommend spraying the quick detailer onto the cloth first before wiping the wheels to avoid over-spray onto the brake components. Always use a fresh microfiber cloth for different products and tasks!

Don't forget to dry sills, door jambs and the fuel filler flap!

If you have access to compressed air, blow any crevices such as grilles, badges and wheels dry.

Quick detailer can be found here:

Drying towels can be found here:

Electrical blower can be found here:

Microfibers can be found here:

5. Polishing

With the car dry and prepared for polishing its now time to make it shine.

You can either polish by hand or by machine. Polishing by machine is preferred as the results will be significantly better, however machine polishing is quite a daunting thought for enthusiasts, especially the beginner.

I recommend using an all-in-one type polish as this will cleanse the paintwork removing light oxidation, reducing light defects and will leave a suitable base layer behind for a wax to adhere to, with a nice, deep wet look finish.

Using a microfiber or dual foam applicator, apply a small drop of product to the applicator and work into the paint until the residue turns clear. Use light pressure with either a forward and backward motion or circular overlapping motions. Work in a 18 x 18 inch area at most and once product has turned clear, leave to haze for a few minutes before buffing away with a microfiber cloth. I recommend working on one panel at a time (or half the bonnet/roof) to remain consistent.

After polishing we would normally add in a paint glaze to enhance paintwork and reduce the appearance of fine swirls. This would typically be applied with the same method as polishing. Ensure all residue is removed ready for the next stage.

Polish can be found here:

Polish microfiber applicators can be found here:

Dual foam applicators can be found here:

6. Wax / Seal

After all your hard work, we need to seal it all in. A layer of wax or sealant will protect the paintwork. I'd recommend a ceramic (Si02 infused) wax as these are easy to apply, easy to remove and offer around 6 - 8 months protection whilst maintaining high gloss levels.

However if you're after bags of gloss I'd recommend a show wax which will be high in gloss, but low in durability. Conversely a sealant will offer high durability but will lower gloss levels. What you gain on one aspect, you'll lose in the other, which is where the ceramic style wax comes into play offering both. There are also many ultra-hard ceramic coatings available that offer both gloss and extended durability, some lasting up to 9 or 10 years, but I'd strongly advise applying these yourself as they are very technical and should be left to the pros.

Turn a foam applicator a quarter turn in the pot to coat pad with the wax (should be enough for a single panel), apply with small, even, overlapping strokes with a thin and even layer across the panel. Apply to the whole car before removing. After being applied to the entire vehicle, buff off the wax residue using a plush microfiber cloth.

If the wax has dried you can use a water-based quick detailer to help ease remove it. Make sure to wait at least 3 hours in between layers of wax.

I'd recommend not polishing or waxing a car in direct sunlight or conditions of high humidity as it can lead to incorrect curing halting performance.

Wheels too can be waxed or sealed, depending on the wheel finish. For the two vehicles featured in the blog, two completely different preparation methods were used. The chrome wheels on the Comet we polished with a metal polish before being waxed. The lacquered diamond cut wheels on the BMW were polished with a pre wax cleanser before being waxed. I'll be posting a "how to: care for your wheels" blog soon to help you deep clean and protect your rims. Stay tuned!

Ceramic Wax can be found here:

Show wax can be found here:

Paint sealant can be found here:

7. Windows and glass

Cleaning windows is often something that gets overlooked however although you have just shampoo'd and dried the car, a dedicated window cleaner will do wonders to your glass.

Using a window cleaner and a glass waffle cloth (or a microfiber cloth). Spray a small misting (around 2 or 3 spritz) over the window and buff until the product has disappeared. Flip the cloth over and buff with the clean side to reveal crystal clear glass! For mirrors spray directly onto the microfiber towel and then wipe across the mirror glass.

For heavier soiling or staining use a glass polish. Apply 2 pea-sized drops to a microfiber applicator and with light to medium pressure work into the glass in overlapping circular motions. Buff clear with a microfiber cloth

Glass cleaner can be found here:

Glass waffle can be found here:

Glass polish can be found here:

Polish applicator can be found here:

8. Tyres and trim

With the rest of the car complete the last step is to finesse though smaller but crucial areas to make your car stand out from the crowd!

Using a microfiber applicator and some trim dressing, spray a couple spritz into the applicator and apply to trims, and simply leave to cure. Wipe any excess away with a microfiber towel.

You can also spray trim dressing onto wheel arch liners!

If you plastic trims are a little faded, use a trim restorer instead. Apply a small amount to an applicator and massage into the faded trim removing any excess off paintwork. Leave to soak for around 5 - 10 minutes and remove any excess. You could then add a layer of dressing to offer more durability.

Finally with a sponge applicator, apply a few drops of tyre creme and massage into the tyre sidewall and allow to dry. I personally recommend 2 layers per tyre to give off that perfect satin finish.

Trim dressing can be found here:

Trim restorer can be found here:

Tyre creme can be found here:

Tyre applicator:

9. Step back and admire the beauty

Once complete, I usually have a slow wonder around the vehicle removing any dust or fingerprints with a quick detailing spray. Also remember to remove residue from door gaps and around trims etc.

That's it, its all complete. I'd recommend doing this as a bare minimum before winter and after. Although at the start of summer is also advisable. Keep on top of your hard work with regular maintenance washes. For cars used everyday I'd recommend at least once every 2 weeks. Avoid using car washes in between as they most likely will damage what you've spent all day doing (read up on that here).

To keep on top of cleanliness, see our how to wash your car guide!

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